Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls, 1948)

Letter from an Unknown Woman is one of the saddest films I’ve seen out of 1940s Hollywood. My second Ophüls film, I believe that one could devote a lifetime to studying the intricacies of his camera movements; it’s not just that there is a technical genius to the way he situates his camera and builds his dolly tracks so that the movements appear fluid and effortless. There is a profound way the camera becomes personally identified with the characters, not taking a strictly subjective vantage point, but directing itself in such a way that it obeys their thoughts and impulses. A typical long shot of Lisa, the love-stricken heroine, as a child beating rugs in the yard with her friend suddenly becomes a slow tracking shot up to the top of an outdoor stairwell to the next-door apartment of the man she loves, building suspense as she is temporarily blocked out before reaching top. As she reaches a midway point, she is in full view, but then she turns the corner and continues her trek; suddenly the camera is at a low-angle, building an even fiercer suspense than before. There is another simple shot at a candy store, where the camera seems transfixed on the exuberant motions of a toffee maker, before suddenly tracking to the left in coordination with a long wooden oven pan arriving at Lisa, eyeing her spoils with delight.

I like this so much better than The Earrings of Madame de…, which is to some his best film, because that film played along like an extended short story, reliant on baroque symbols and archetypal scenarios, methodically structured and predetermined by coincidences. Letter from an Unknown Woman depends similarly on the conflict between a woman’s love and the world’s ignorance to that love; she has spent her whole life in love with a famous composer and he only meets her twice, the first time years after she had first fallen in love and the second time not even remembering the first. He is oblivious to his responsibilities to her and she refuses to reveal herself to him; she is left by the end alone and he about to face his demise at the hands of her husband. This sounds like a stock tragic romance, but as a ninety-minute film that rushes headlong through a woman’s entire life, it makes a strong case for the necessary elisions and simplifications intrinsic to such a tale. As she states at the beginning, she cannot remember her life before she first eyed the man she loves, and whenever she sees him the entirety of her life feels compressed, as if not just romantically, but truly perceptually her life is defined by the short time she has spent in his presence. What is so devastating is that he only understands this on hindsight, after a life of ostensible success resulting in bitter failure. The final flashback montage is so perfect, such a concise disclosure of the film’s enchantment with ephemeral joy. Even without this thematic strength, the story is told so elegantly as to make it transcendent.

The film is set in a Vienna so delicately crafted in the studio that it would almost appear to single-handedly justify one of Manny Farber’s problems with The Third Man, that it wasted its on-location shooting with the kind of manipulated, oblique imagery ideal for replication on a soundstage. Letter from an Unknown Woman contrasts the war-ravaged network of criminal racketeering with a dark, dreamy land of cobblestone streets, close-knit complexes, parks and candy stores. It feels just as real and immersive, if not more so, than the Vienna of The Third Man, which to me seems like a sort of abstraction.

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